I drive past it often — whenever I take the Washington Street exit from I-5 north to go to Mission Hills. But Il Centro Pizza e Birra always goes by in a blur.
Problem is, coming off the exit ramp, you have merge into the left lane of India Street at the same time traffic is merging over to get to the freeway on-ramp a block ahead. There's usually a bit of dodging and weaving involved, and just when I've got my bearings I think, "Did that sign say pizza and beer?"
It did. It does. Like most of us, I'm a big fan of both, so when I drove by this week, I finally doubled back to try it. I found a chill little spot with an industrial storefront softened by large windows and a verdant dining patio. Along with 24 taps of beer, and a mix of wines from Italy and California, the place serves paninis and pastas in addition to thin-crust pizza.
As I learned when I walked in, the secret to the food here is the shop makes both own its pizza dough and mozzarella. Including daily specials, two dozen pizza choices greeted me, and eight pretty tasty sounding sandwiches. So I tried one of each.
Choosing the pizza proved tough. While the menu doesn't offer pepperoni, its extensive list of specialty pies (ranging from $9-15) features the likes of prosciutto, soppressata, speck, anchovies, tuna, and a litany of vegetables. I went for the Contadina, topped with Italian sausage, black olives, and caramelized onions.
I failed to notice that particular pie is made with a cream sauce rather than tomato. The fourteen or fifteen inch pizza still tasted great, with soft, doughy crust and olive oil drizzle on a blend of fontina and mozzarella cheese — along with the garlicky sauce it pitched extra umami against the sausage's earthy spice. I did ask to try the tomato sauce on the side, and those craving a bit more acidity on their pizza will be satisfied.
3625 India Street, Little Italy
My panini ate just as well. Dubbed the Notorious P.I.G., it offered both porchetta and bacon with arugula, aged cheddar, and more of that house mozzarella.
It did sound like overkill, but porchetta turned out to be more like thin slices of ham versus the thick chunks of roasted, seasoned pork belly and loin I associate with the term. The bacon was cut thicker though, and what really made the sandwich were the fresh, floury bread and that house mozzarella. The bread matched the pizza crust texture, but in sandwich form the mozzarella really stood out — creamy with a balanced salt profile. Again, with the earthiness of the arugula and savory saltiness of the meats and cheeses, a little brightness could have made the sandwich even better, but all can be made right with a sip of cold birra.